HOME—US Scouting—BSA History
This brief history was researched and written by Scoutmaster Jeff Snowden in 1984, and has been continually updated since. It is based on considerable research (see reference list at the end) and personal experience. The history is intended to be accurate and factual, but of course will contain some personal interpretations of events. Corrections of fact are always welcome.
Scouting began in England in 1907-08, created by General Robert Baden-Powell. B-P, a 50-year old bachelor at the time, was one of the few heroes to come out of Britain's South African ('Boer') War. He was known primarily for his unusual ideas about military scouting, explained in his book Aids to Scouting. Startled to discover that many boys were using his military book as a guide to outdoor activities, he began to think how he could convert his concepts of army scouting for men to "peace scouting" for boys. Gathering ideas from many sources (including Ernest Thompson Seton, who had founded a boys organization in the US), he tested his program on a group of boys on Brownsea Island in 1907. The island camp was successful, so B-P rewrote his military book, calling it Scouting for Boys. The climate was right for a youth program like Scouting, and it spread quickly around the British commonwealth, then to other countries.
World Scouting Today
Today, Scouting is found in 190 of the world's 195 independent countries. The United States has a single national Scouting organization (many countries, especially in Europe, have several separate Scout organizations, divided by religion or language, with different uniforms, advancement, and national hierarchies). Scouting is the world's most successful youth movement. [More information on international Scouting can be found on our World Scouting page.]
Boy Scouts of America (BSA)
William Boyce. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was founded by Chicago publisher William Boyce on February 8, 1910. At that time in the US, there were several other loosely structured outdoor-oriented youth organizations, some using the name "Boy Scout" and some using other names, and there were already a number of troops in existence using some variation of the British Scout program. Boyce's key contribution was to organize the BSA as a business. He incorporated the organization (in Washington, DC, rather than Chicago), recruited key youth professionals (in particular from the YMCA) to design and operate the program, and he provided key funding for the infant organization.
YMCA— To a great extent, the YMCA operated the BSA during its first year, particularly YMCA executive Edgar Robinson, who first suggested to Boyce that the YMCA was well positioned to provide structure and leadership to his fledgling Boy Scouts of America. Robinson set up the first BSA office next to his in Manhattan, and recruited YMCA official John Alexander to be the BSA's first 'managing secretary'.
Early Actions. The new BSA quickly established a national office, developed a temporary handbook, sought out Baden-Powell's endorsement (which they got), and continued the effort begun by Boyce to get a Congressional Charter from the US Congress (which they got in 1916). They also began an active campaign to absorb all other Scout-type youth organizations into the BSA, often simply inviting rival leaders to be members of the new BSA National Council. Indeed, only one such organization held out past 1912—publisher William Randolph Hearst's militaristic 'US Boy Scout' (also called the 'American Boy Scout') organization (founded only three months after the BSA, in May, 1910, and later a member of the Order of World Scouts, a mostly British program in competition with Baden-Powell's program). Resorting to the federal courts, and aided by their Congressional Charter and testimony from Baden-Powell, the BSA obtained a favorable ruling against the "US Boy Scout" in 1919.
Early Rivals to BSA—Some of the early, non-BSA Scouting-type programs in the US included:
The Founders. Three people influenced the BSA's development more than any others: Ernest Thompson Seton, James West, and to a lesser extent, Daniel Beard.
Daniel Carter Beard."Uncle Dan" Beard was beloved by millions of American Boy Scouts during his lifetime. A well-known artist and outdoorsman, he had founded a Scout-like organization called the Sons of Daniel Boone in 1905. While it had much in common with Boy Scouting, it lacked organizational structure (it was promoted through several magazines). It does not appear that Baden-Powell used any of Dan Beard's literature as he formulated his ideas for Boy Scouting.
Ernest Thompson Seton. Seton, a famous writer and artist, had founded a loosely structured boys' program called the Woodcraft Indians in 1902. Seton had also visited England in 1904, where he met with Baden-Powell and gave him a copy of his manual for the Woodcraft Indians. B-P used many of Seton's ideas as he developed his Boy Scouting program. Indeed, Seton's introduction to the Original Edition of the BSA's Boy Scout Handbook makes it clear that he considered himself to be the real founder of the World Scouting movement: "In 1904, I went to England to carry on the work [of fostering a "Woodcraft and Scouting movement"] there, and, knowing General R. S. S. Baden-Powell as the chief advocate of scouting in the British Army, invited him to cooperate with me, in making the movement popular. Accordingly, in 1908 he organized his Boy Scout movement, incorporating the principles of the [Woodcraft] Indians with other ethical features bearing on savings banks, fire drills, etc., as well as by giving it a partly military organization, and a carefully compiled and fascinating book." When William Boyce incorporated the Boy Scouts of America in 1910, Seton joined the new organization and became the BSA's first Chief Scout (from 1910 to 1915).
James West. West was a Washington, DC, attorney active in juvenile cases. Recruited in 1911 as Executive Secretary, West soon changed his title to Chief Scout Executive. West created a well-organized national structure that was a key to the BSA's growth and reputation. Although he had intended to make Scouting only a temporary diversion from his legal career, West remained Chief Scout Executive from 1911 until his retirement in 1943.
Power Struggle. West and Seton (and also Beard) fought constantly over the direction of the BSA. The story of their rivalry, and how it affected the young BSA, is fascinating [see The Scouting Party, 2010, by Scott & Murphy]. West was the organizer, and had the support of the executive board on the direction that BSA should go. Beard ultimately found a niche writing for Boys Life magazine and making appearances around the country. But Seton's ideas were too often contrary to what West and the board believed, and ultimately Seton was forced to resign from the BSA (December, 1915). Per Seton's request, all the chapters he had authored for the Boy Scout Handbook (Handbook for Boys) were removed with the 14th printing in 1916, and replaced with similar chapters by other authors. Nevertheless, neither world Scouting nor the BSA would be what they are without Seton's contributions.
Camp Fire USA and Girl Scouts of the USA
Girls in the US have had two options similar to Boy Scouting: Camp Fire USA (formerly called Camp Fire Girls, started in 1910), and Girl Scouts of the USA (formerly called the Girl Scouts of America, started in 1912).
Camp Fire began almost immediately after the Boy Scouts, and there was involvement by BSA founders early on, including James E. West (BSA's new Chief Scout Executive), who always regarded Camp Fire as the girls' equivalent to Boy Scouting. Originally for girls only, the program became coed in 1975. [More about Camp Fire can be found on our Scout-like Organizations page.]
The Girl Scouts of America was founded by Juliette Gordon "Daisy" Low in 1912, and received a Congressional Charter in 1950. The girls' version of Scouting is called Girl Guiding in most countries, to differentiate it from the boys' program (the Boy Scout and Girl Guide movements were both founded by Baden-Powell). The Scout/Guide distinction has been lost in many countries, where boys and girls are members of coed troops. In other countries, the Boy Scout and Girl Guide programs have a common national organization, but with separate troops for Scouts and Guides. In still other countries (such as the US), the boys' and girls' programs are completely separate at all levels. Having two separate organizations in the US both using the terms "Scout" and "Scouting" has cause nearly a century of confusion for the general public and for potential monetary donors.
US Girl Scouting is divided into four divisions based on school grade:
The former Senior Girl Scout program had great difficulty competing for girls with the BSA's Exploring program after Exploring became coed in 1971.
More information can be found on our Girl Scouts of the USA page.